Approach of Mars drawing eyes to sky

Tuesday, August 26, 2003

Astronomers have never seen Mars as up close as they will this week.

The elliptical orbits of both Earth and Mars bring the planets relatively close every 18 months or so, but the Red Planet hasn't been this close in 57,000 years.

At 4:51 a.m. Wednesday, Mars will only be 34.6 million miles away. It won't be that close again until Aug. 28, 2287.

When the Earth and Mars were in a similar position in 2001, the two planets were about 43 million miles apart.

The event has drawn international attention to the skies, attention that Michael Cobb, a professor of physics at Southeast Missouri State University, says is a bit hyped.

Still, "It's kind of cool," Cobb said. "It's an historic event."

Mars is the red dot in the southeastern sky.

"It's spooky, it's so bright," he said.

Carl Burger of Glenallen, Mo., said he has noticed the planet on his way home from work in the evenings.

"I don't have a telescope, but I know where it's at," he said. "It shows up on some nights when other stars don't."

While Mars is visually stunning, Cobb said, the conditions are not perfect for gazing through a telescope. Atmospheric distortion -- much like the heat waves that can be seen shimmering over a sun-baked road or over a burning trash can -- affects the images telescopes receive. The problem is worse in the summer. That's the main reason, Cobb said, he decided not to open up the astronomy facilities at Southeast.

"I think a lot of us are spoiled by the images we see that come back from the Hubble telescope," Cobb said. "I think everybody would be disappointed."

Jim Hickam, a Jackson resident and astronomy lover, said the best time to view the planet through a lens is around midnight.

Depending on how strong the lens is, observers might be able to make out polar caps.

"For anyone interested in astronomy, it's a good opportunity to observe," Hickam said. "It's a good time to pull the old telescopes out of the attic. And Mars is just one thing in the sky. People should take an opportunity to look at other things in the sky. There's a whole universe of things out there."

The Hubble Space Telescope is expected to take close-approach portraits of Mars today and Wednesday.

Astronomers will also bounce radio waves off Mars to study the terrain where one of the two NASA rovers is targeted to land in January. The proximity of the planets will improve the resolution of the radar images, said Albert Haldemann, deputy project scientist for the rover mission.

The Associated Press contributed to this story.

bmiller@semissourian.com

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